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Unplugging the Player from the Protagonist

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Monday, Jul 25, 2011
L.A. Noire, unlike most modern games, obstinately refuses to allow the player to develop the hero.

The most ostensibly distinct feature of games over other forms of art is the heavy reliance on interactivity. Where the audience of any other artistic work is only symbolically connected to a piece through interpretation or discussion, a game can only progress when the player has their hands on the controller and literally moves the story along. To move the story along, the golden rule is that the protagonist must be somebody that the player would want to be. As a result, most heroes are flawless action stars against a legitimate and unambiguously evil threat (Marcus Fenix of Gears of War), morally neutral until the player makes their decisions for them (Commander Shepard of Mass Effect), or completely silent (Link of The Legend of Zelda). In any case, the purpose is to limit character development or hand developmental authority to the player. But L.A. Noire shows that a more sophisticated character arc can be drawn when authorship of a character is taken away from the player and gamers are forced to play as someone that they wouldn’t want to be.


There is a critical moment in L.A. Noire that seems to divide those that enjoyed the game and those that hated it. At the end of the second chapter, when Cole Phelps is promoted from traffic to homicide, Roy Earle—a sleazy vice detective—takes Phelps out for a congratulatory drink. At this point the player knows that Phelps is a stickler for the rules and that he is an effective and dedicated police officer. His morals are agreeable and his methods are efficient—he is who a player would want to be. But when Earle pushes around and berates a black maitre d’, walks into a drug nest, and assaults a woman, Phelps does nothing.
  
“Why can’t I do anything?” the frustrated player cries. Marcus Fenix would turn Earle into paste, Commander Shepard would draw her pistol and charm/intimidate Earle down, and Link exists in a world where racism and the abuse of women don’t exist [Ed. Well, barring princess abuse.], so he wouldn’t be in that situation. But Phelps just watches while a police officer acts like a thug. He doesn’t even consider intervening. The player sees for the first time that Phelps is no hero—he’s not the good guy. But enjoying L.A. Noire depends on realizing that Phelps and the player are completely separate entities. If Phelps angrily accuses a cuckolded husband of murder when the player merely wanted to “doubt” an alibi, players get angry. “I didn’t mean for him to say that,” they rightfully complain. Phelps seldom acts the way that the player would want him to. That’s the point.


Phelps has his own motivation and personality informed by his history as a former combatant in the Pacific Theatre during World War II that virtually no player can relate to. Heroes in any Bioware or Bethesda universe are vessels for the player; their backstories are purposefully left vague so as to be imagined by the player. Master Chief and Soap McTavish are blank slates that are the vehicle for the player’s running and gunning. Even silent protagonists like Link or Chrono are surrounded by interesting characters but keep quiet so that they don’t violate the player’s sensibilities. The relationship between Phelps and the player, however, is completely divided.


At first Phelps seems like the lone force of justice in a corrupt and traumatized city, but the more that he reveals, the more obvious it is that Phelps is just as corrupted and traumatized. This process is gradual. Phelps’s history is only alluded to, and his backstory is not revealed immediately. The player has every reason to believe that Phelps is controlling a version of themselves. It isn’t until the game is nearly over that the player has a real sense of who Phelps is.


By the time that L.A. Noire nears its climax, the rift between Phelps and the player has become absolute. Phelps is no longer the player’s avatar, and Jack Kelso is the player’s new vehicle. Kelso is incorruptible and strong willed. He knows to avoid violence, but when it is forced on him, he’s a capable fighter. He’s what Cole Phelps pretends to be and what the player expects to be. He’s also a Mary Sue in a world of frauds, phonies and criminals.


For better or for worse, the Phelpses of gaming are becoming increasingly rare. Players expect either to build their own characters from the ground up or to have a morally neutral protagonist as a placeholder. Building a deep and complicated character without any input from the player, as in the case of Phelps, isn’t often attempted anymore—except perhaps in JRPGs.


We’re left with Kelsos instead of Phelpses. We have handsome paragons purging the undercity of gangs and lunatics with a flamethrower; we don’t have the irredeemable seeking redemption or at least pretending to seek it. Phelps is usually likeable or understandable but never both at the same time. He’s the kind of character that no player would intentionally build alone and probably wouldn’t stick with him if stumbled upon. Experiencing Phelps’s arc first hand could only come from the designers writing him that way.


There’s nothing wrong with simple, player-dependent or silent heroes, and L.A. Noire isn’t without its other flaws. Mechanical failures may have broken the validity of L.A. Noire’s experiment. Players that may have gladly followed with Cole’s development often never played through the awkward cover-based shooting, the frustrating car chases or the clumsy fistfights. But even if L.A. Noire were a perfectly developed game, the lack of control over Phelps’s character put off a lot of players.


L.A. Noire takes the character development out of the player’s control. The player is not Phelps. They are completely different. Phelps develops entirely without the player’s permission and in a direction outside of anyone’s control. The execution isn’t perfect, but L.A. Noire occupies a bizarre space in modern gaming—it unabashedly takes control away from the character. Whether or not it has succeeded depends largely on who’s asked, but it nonetheless stands out as a unique risk that isn’t often made in modern games.


 

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